WORTH THEIR SALT

'Tis the season of the munchies . . . fa la la.It's not hard getting retailers to sing the praises of salty snacks, and the chorus is particularly strident during the holidays.With tortilla chips still smoking along at an impressive clip, pretzels still riding the good-for-you wave and potato chips holding their own, salty snacks are primed for a big promotional season."Salty snacks are definitely

'Tis the season of the munchies . . . fa la la.

It's not hard getting retailers to sing the praises of salty snacks, and the chorus is particularly strident during the holidays.

With tortilla chips still smoking along at an impressive clip, pretzels still riding the good-for-you wave and potato chips holding their own, salty snacks are primed for a big promotional season.

"Salty snacks are definitely one of our most profitable segments," said Jeff Savage, a grocery buyer for Houston-based Randalls Food Markets.

"Snacks are some of the most profitable items you can sell within a supermarket," echoed Dick Salmon, senior vice president of Melmarkets Foodtown, Garden City, N.Y.

"I just did some business reviews with some of the manufacturers, and it looks like our salty snack category is up 16% to 18% across the board in sales," said Tom Mathey, director of merchandising for O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind.

According to Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill., during the 52-week period ended in mid-June, potato chips were still king, raking in nearly $2 billion in sales, up 1.2% over 1993. Tortilla chips totaled $1.27 billion, up 7.9%, while pretzels weighed in at $519.3 million, representing a hefty 20% increase.

And those numbers will only inflate during the next few months.

"We probably sell 40% of our salty snacks in the next two months," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president of Magruder's, based in Randallstown, Md.

"No holiday's complete without having all the little goodies around them," said Melmarkets' Salmon.

And during the holiday's no salty snack promotion is without a "party" theme.

Indeed, a handful of retailers have taken the party merchandising idea a step further by giving it its own, permanent section. For example, Kroger Co.'s Hyde Park store in Cincinnati featured a "Party Foods" alcove, which appeared to carry every salty snack, cracker and beverage known to man.

Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., also has a neon-signed "Party Center."

The concept, which is in all but one of Dierbergs' 14 stores, grew out of competition from a local liquor retailer, according to Mike Bossi, the buyer in charge of the Party Center.

"We were trying to attract the customer who was having a party and going to the liquor store," he explained. "There was a liquor chain here called 905 Liquor stores and they changed their name to 905 Party Center."

Dierbergs' decided it wanted to be the place people went for all their party needs and created its own center. "That's why we took everything and isolated it underneath a different type of roofline to offset it from the grocery part of the store."

Generally, the party centers are in the center of the grocery aisles, separating edible and nonedible groceries, said Bossi. The center takes up approximately two grocery aisles.

"You can find everything you want for a party: snacks, beverages, wine. We have big, long-running, cold boxes and coolers. We're basically a one-stop shop for parties," Bossi said.

Making every effort to be that one-stop as well, other retailers are finding that they not only get the traditional Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's crowd at their salty snack displays, but that the season is now extended to include the Super Bowl and other regional events.

"They sell year-round, but now is the major period of the year for salty snacks, especially in December," said Ned Meara, corporate grocery merchandising manager for Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J. "It will remain strong through New Year's, with New Year's Eve being a peak night. Then you'll have about a week lull and it will pick up again as it builds toward Super Bowl," he said. "That's a crazy week for snacks and nuts."

The next period of increased salty snack activity, said Meara, is a relatively new one. And that is during the Final Four tournament. "That really seems to be capturing the nation and getting tremendous ratings on TV. We have successful [snack] promotions during that time frame as well."

In New Orleans, there's always a reason for chips. "We celebrate everything down here; it's a party town," said a source close to A&P's New Orleans division.

"We'll promote salty snacks heavily through Christmas, New Year's, Super Bowl, and right on through Mardi Gras; sales droop during Lent," he said.

Louisiana may have Mardi Gras, but Texas has the rodeo. According to Randalls' Savage, the early February rodeo season is cause for the continued push for salty snacks through the Super Bowl. "We do see an increase in snacks when the rodeo comes around."

And what's a salty snack without something to dip it in, and wash it down with? "Our traditional merchandising of salty snacks is always in the same aisle or across the aisle from our beverages," said Grand Union's Meara. "So, you get that party effect." And when the snacks are put on an end display, Meara makes sure that the adjacent end display has some kind of soda or beer. "We try to tie in the salty snacks with those natural associations so we can get a multiple sale.

"It also has helped us pick up incremental sales in all of the dips and everything that can be merchandised out of there like salsa, which is another category that has grown tremendously over the past few years."

He added that retailers are very conscious of what suppliers have in store when designing their store sets. "For instance, Frito-Lay, being the leader, has got some real strong advertising campaigns that key in on the Super Bowl."

Rick Hagan, direct store delivery manager for Camellia Foods, Norfolk, Va., said that his chain does blocks of party foods in its ads.

"We give our stores guidance on how to make displays. In the past, they would just build up an endcap of beer. And now, we're trying to get them to tie in a tower of potato, tortilla and corn chips."

This is the time of year, added Hagan, that dips can be cross-merchandised effectively. "Because, in the middle of the summer when people have chips on the picnic table, they're hesitant to put the dairy products out there. But this time of the year, you can have the tie-in with dips, and of course with beverages."

"We routinely display salty snacks across from the soft drinks in our regular aisles; the two go hand in hand," said Dave Renaldi, a grocery buyer for Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.

Melmarkets' Salmon said he, too, builds displays of snacks and beverages together as well as a series of secondary snack displays throughout the store.

And just what are hungry party-goers grabbing these days? "The flavored chips are really moving," said Jim LeFebvre, the head grocery buyer for Stanley Stores, Bay City, Texas. "There's a variety of flavors out there, such as mesquite, Cajun and spicy.

"We've seen significant increases in pretzels. They continue to grow because of the no-fat or low-fat factors," said Camellia's Hagan. "And, of course, there's an increase in the corn snacks like tortilla chips. We've picked up business from last year to this year in that category as well."